03/19/2010 11:00PM

Gambolati back in the Derby chase

Barbara D. Livingston
Cam Gambolati, trainer of the 1985 Derby winner, Spend a Buck, has a candidate this year in Soaring Empire.

A guy who helped change the course of racing will be running a horse in the Grade 1, $750,000 Florida Derby on Saturday, but most of the fans in the crowd at Gulfstream Park would probably not be able to identify him. Yet whenever trainer Cam Gambolati meets strangers, be it on an airplane or some other social setting, and is asked what he does, inevitably there is a follow-up question: "Ever win the Kentucky Derby?"

"You say yes, and most of the time they don't believe it, or else they're amazed," Gambolati said. "It's the greatest accomplishment in this sport, to win the Kentucky Derby."

Hard to believe, but it has been 25 years since Gambolati, just 35 at the time, saddled Spend a Buck for the 111th Kentucky Derby, then watched him thoroughly dominate his 12 rivals, including three horses - Chief's Crown, Proud Truth, and Skywalker - who won Breeders' Cup races. Spend a Buck had a six-length lead midway through the race, and , winning in 2:00.20, at the time the third-fastest Derby ever, and still the fourth-fastest.

"You can't believe it," Gambolati said. "You can't believe a horse can run like that and you train him."




What happened next, though, is the lasting legacy of Spend a Buck. His owner, Dennis Diaz, decided to forgo the Triple Crown to shoot for a rich bonus offered by Garden State Park, which had reopened that year. Robert Brennan, who resurrected the track, put up $2 million to any horse who could sweep his track's Derby preps - the Cherry Hill Stakes and Garden State Stakes - win the Kentucky Derby, and then capture the Jersey Derby on Memorial Day. Spend a Buck succeeded, holding on to .

Running in the Jersey Derby, though, meant bypassing the Preakness. It was the second time in four years that a horse had skipped the second leg of the Triple Crown, following Gato Del Sol in 1982. Obviously, tradition alone was not going to pay the bills. By the next year, Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont Park had formed Triple Crown Productions, offering a single nomination slip for the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. They also got a corporate sponsor to put up bonus money for the Triple Crown, thus seeing Brennan's poker play and raising him.

In the 25 years since, Garden State has closed, and the Triple Crown bonus and a common corporate sponsor subsequently went away owing to a lack of a viable competitor, forcing the three races to increase their individual purses. Spend a Buck and Diaz have died, and Brennan, convicted of securities fraud, is sitting in a jail cell.

Gambolati, though, is back with a potential Derby starter. He trains the lightly raced but promising Soaring Empire, an Empire Maker colt who won an allowance race at Gulfstream last month in his 3-year-old debut. That was only his third start, following a maiden win at Monmouth, and a third-place finish in the Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs, the second start gleaning exactly $11,476 in graded stakes money.

Now, Soaring Empire - owned in part by the University of Louisville's basketball coach, Rick Pitino - will get a chance in the Florida Derby to earn his way to the Kentucky Derby. Gambolati is realistic about his chances - "He hasn't run two turns yet," he said - but calls Soaring Empire "the second-most talented horse I've ever trained."

"He's a very, very talented horse," Gambolati said from Boynton Beach, Florida, where he spends the winters, training at Palm Meadows and racing at Gulfstream Park, before going to Monmouth Park for the summer. "When he won his last race, he was stuck behind horses, then swung out six wide, which you don't do at Gulfstream, and won pretty easily. He's got a classic Derby pedigree. He's the one that can get me back there. But even if he doesn't, you will hear a lot about him later on. I wouldn't want to go to the Derby to finish 14th."

Though he has the backing of Pitino and Chris Sullivan, the owner of the Outback Steakhouse restaurant chain, Gambolati has never been one to have a large barn. Since taking out his training license in 1982, Gambolati has never won more than 29 races in a single year. His barn won $4.4 million in purses in 1984 and 1985, when he had Spend a Buck, but only three other times have his horses earned more than $500,000 in a single year. His career stats - 342 wins and $11.5 million in purses - is about what Steve Asmussen does in seven months. Gambolati currently has 13 horses, eight of whom are owned all or in part by Pitino and Sullivan's Ol Memorial Stable.

"It's a different era now than 25 years ago," Gambolati said. "Horses are trained completely differently. Before, it was easier to get to the Derby. Now everybody wants to run. You have to worry about graded stakes earnings. And horses don't stay as sound as years ago."

Soaring Empire was purchased as a yearling for $190,000. "Helen Alexander was selling him," Gambolati said. "I've had good luck buying horses from her. He was a little backwards, immature. You try to look at what he'll look like down the road. And hopefully he turns into what he is now, which is a grand-looking horse."

Soaring Empire broke poorly in his debut, but still won. Following his second start, "he was a little body-sore," Gambolati said. Soaring Empire also has balked at being loaded on vans. In different ways - physically and mentally - those are all signs of immaturity. But the latent talent is there, and there is no time like now to find out if he belongs in the Derby.

"Is he up to this yet? He may not be," Gambolati said. "But he deserves the chance."

In other Derby developments:

* A potential private sale of Alphie's Bet, the Sham Stakes winner, fell through this week. Though he would not divulge the potential buyer nor the terms, co-owner Peter Johnson said, "That's correct, it did not happen," when asked Wednesday about the sale. Nick Sallusto, an agent who does work for IEAH Stables and Paul Pompa, was at Hollywood Park, where Alphie's Bet is stabled, on Tuesday.


Todd Pletcher. The runner-up finish by Interactif in the San Felipe Stakes last Saturday put that colt in the top 20 of Derby Watch, and gave Pletcher his sixth runner on the list. Interactif is a 20-1 shot on the Kentucky Derby future line of Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. The only other addition to the top 20 this week is Odysseus, who captured the Tampa Bay Derby in his stakes debut last Saturday. Sidney's Candy, 25-1 last week, is now 15-1 on Watchmaker's line following his win in the San Felipe.


Buddy's Saint (injury) and American Lion (poor performance) were dropped from the top 20 to make room for the two newcomers. Dublin, who finished third in the Rebel Stakes, saw his price double on Watchmaker's line to 20-1 from last week's 10-1.


Had the Tampa Bay Derby photo gone the other way, Schoolyard Dreams would have made the list this week. At some point in the near future, the Derby Watch list will have to be driven by graded stakes earnings, so look for Homeboykris, despite his poor recent form and sparse 2010 racing schedule, to be moved onto the list soon. Soaring Empire could vault into the top 20 should he run a big race in the Florida Derby on Saturday. Also knocking on the door is Mendip, who is the likely favorite one week from Saturday in the United Arab Emirates Derby.